Young girls who have been called “too fat” are more likely to be obese as young adults, according to a new research letter.
The early stigma of being labeled that way may worsen the problem rather than encouraging girls to become healthier, but more research is needed to be sure, the study authors say.
“This study is one step closer to being able to draw that conclusion, but of course we can't definitively say that calling a girl "too fat" will make her obese,” said senior author A. Janet Tomiyama of the University of California, Los Angeles.
“This study recruited girls when they were age 10 and followed them over nine years, so we know it's more than just a one-time connection, which makes me believe that it's an important question to continue researching,” Tomiyama told Reuters Health in an email.
She and her coauthor examined data from an existing study that followed girls through their teen years. At age 10, the girls answered the question, “have any of these people told you that you were too fat: father, mother, brother, sister, best girlfriend, boy you like best, any other girl, any other boy, or teacher?”
Out of just over 2,000 girls, a total of 1,188 answered “yes” to any of the choices.
Those girls were more likely to have a body mass index (BMI) – a measure of weight relative to height - in the obese range ten years later than girls who answered “no,” according to the results in JAMA Pediatrics.
“We know from considerable evidence that youth who feel stigmatized or shamed about their weight are vulnerable to a range of negative psychological and physical health consequences,” said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
“This study suggests that negative weight labels may contribute to these experiences and have a lasting and potentially damaging impact for girls,” said Puhl, who was not part of the study.
Girls who had been labeled “fat” were still at higher risk of obesity even when researchers accounted for their BMIs at age 10, household income, race and parental education level.
The effect seemed to be strongest when the labels came from family members, which increased the risk of obesity later by 60 percent, compared to 40 percent when the comments came from friends or teachers. But it’s not wise to make too much out of the difference